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The dead woman stands in the line for the tourist-class passengers, her shoes pinching her toes, the cheap fabric of her dress itching her skin. The Morro Castle's diligent clerk examines her papers—the fake passport, the assumed name Elena Reyes—hopefully flawless enough to pass muster. She certainly paid enough for them, money she could ill afford.
The clerk glances down at Elena's photograph on the documents and back at her face again, comparing the two for any obvious differences.
The photo itself is genuine, the image contained there of a young Cuban woman looking surprisingly vibrant considering she is essentially—for practical purposes, at least—a ghost. It was taken two weeks ago in an apartment building in Greenwich Village by a man to whom Elena gave nearly her entire life savings to be able to get on this ship.
It was worth every penny and then some.
The clerk waves her on.
A group of women pass by, their laughter spilling out onto the gangway.
Her fellow passengers are in high spirits despite the tourist-class accommodations, their excitement over their weeklong party on this round-trip voyage from New York to Havana obvious.
This ship is billed as a fantasy for those wealthy enough to afford it in these difficult times.
Before the repeal of Prohibition, the Morro Castle—named after the fortress guarding the Havana Harbor—offered an alcohol-filled cruise, where passengers could escape the dry streets and raging economic depression. Now that liquor is again legally available in the United States, the cruise's appeal hasn't lessened much. Thanks to the Labor Day holiday weekend, the pier is packed with guests in a celebratory mood.
There's a breeze in the air as Elena walks on deck, her dark brown hair whipping around her. Guests hang over the railing waving to friends and family on the dock below as though they will be separated for far longer than a week. But that's part of the adventure—the sensation that they are all embarking on uncharted territory, the voyage brimming with unlimited possibilities.
Elena leans over the railing herself, scanning the crowd. She's antsy for the ship to leave port, for the first part of her plan to tumble into motion. When they're at sea, far from land, they'll be in a cocoon that insulates them from real life and shrinks the world into a very small, manageable size.
It's the perfect hunting ground.
Elena abandons her perch at the rail and strolls around the deck, noting alcoves, spaces that are good for slipping away in case a hasty exit is needed. A few weeks ago, she went to the public library and found deck plans for the Morro Castle, poring over them as best she could. Still, there's nothing like walking the ship herself to get a feel for it and formulate these last, all-important parts of her plan.
Her prey is nowhere to be found, but no matter. On a ship this size, it will be impossible to escape.
Once she's examined the Morro Castle's upper decks, Elena heads to her stateroom and closes the door behind her quickly.
The cabin is small and serviceable, the bed and mattress seemingly comfortable enough. It's not the nicest place she's ever slept, but it's also far from the worst. Her life has been a pendulum of comfort and insecurity, and for now she's just grateful to have a safe place to sleep.
She opens her suitcase, which one of the porters has already delivered to her room, and unpacks the worn clothes she brought for the cruise and the two dresses she bought for two very special occasions.
One is an emerald green color, elegant and fine. The other is a full-skirted blue number, daring and seductive, straps crisscrossed across the fitted bodice. It's a copy of a dress she once owned, each detail painstakingly re-created from memory.
She cannot wait to wear it.
Once Elena has finished unpacking, she exits her stateroom, locking the door behind her, and moves toward the belly of the ship, where the cargo is stored.
In her simple dress, her hair pulled back in a demure bun, no one looks twice at her. The clothes she wears have served her well as a disguise, each outfit presenting a different version of herself to the world, concealing her past and allowing her to navigate her present seamlessly.
The cargo hold is a cavernous space, filled with crates, trunks, and boxes, a faint smell of damp, metal, and sea life in the air. She moves through the room quickly, searching for one particular trunk, the hairpin she pulled to pick the lock resting in the pocket of her dress against her damp palm—
The sound of footsteps pierces the air.
She crouches behind a set of boxes piled as high as she is tall, peering around the corner.
A man strides toward the crates and trunks close to where Elena hides. He isn't dressed in the crew's distinctive uniforms, but rather clothes as nondescript and casual as hers. He's dark-haired and lean, young, too.
Elena pulls back. Better to return when the cargo hold is empty. Her foot catches on one of the boxes, and she lurches forward, crashing into the crate in front of her as she attempts to break her fall.
"Is someone there?" he calls out.
The entrance to the cargo hold is too far away for her to make it in time.
Heart pounding, Elena rises from her crouching position to her full height. "I'm sorry, I got lost. I didn't mean to interrupt your work—"
"—Just checking the cargo," he interjects easily. "Wanted to make sure everything that's supposed to be on the ship made it here safely. How did you get lost down here?"
He asks the question casually enough, but there's a hint there that suggests he's not as easygoing as he pretends to be. He speaks English with a familiar accent. He's Cuban, like her, and despite his claims that he was checking the cargo, the lack of official uniform and his intensity give the impression that he's as much a part of the crew as she is.
There are rumors of weapons being smuggled to Havana on the Morro Castle. Is he a smuggler?
"It's a big ship. I must have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way," Elena answers.
"That's quite the wrong turn."
Her eyes widen with mock alarm, her heart pounding insistently in her breast. "You mean this isn't the ballroom?"
His lips curve slightly. "Perhaps I'm in the wrong place, then. Or at the very least, underdressed," he adds with a full smile.
She was told the hold would be unlocked at the beginning of the voyage, but whether it will remain that way once they leave port and the ship has set sail is another matter entirely. She could leave now and hope that when she returns later, he'll be gone and the trunk will still be here and accessible, or she can be honest—well, somewhat, at least. Years ago, the decision would have been simple, the urge to retreat practically second nature. But after everything she's been through, she's determined to be brave, and if now isn't the perfect opportunity to test out her newfound resolve, then when is?
"I need something from one of the trunks," she says, changing tack entirely.
"Do you now?"
"A friend sent me here," she adds, taking a chance. After all, Miguel is involved in various businesses in Cuba and the United States, the smuggling going on in this cargo hold likely bringing all manner of people together.
"A friend?" he counters.
"Yes." She hesitates. "Perhaps we have a mutual one."
His gaze turns speculative, and she can practically feel him mulling over the possibilities in his mind. "Perhaps we do. This friend of yours have a name?"
"Miguel." It's not much to go on, but if he knows Miguel then he likely understands the importance of discretion—and loyalty.
He nods after a moment. "It seems we do have a friend in common. What do you need?"
"Something from that trunk," she replies, pointing to the container behind him.
"You're Cuban," he says.
"And Miguel sent you to retrieve an item from that trunk?"
"No, I paid Miguel for an item in that trunk. He packed it for me."
"He mentioned that he was transporting something for a friend," the man answers. "I'll admit, I didn't anticipate someone like you being the 'friend' in question. I'll honor your deal with Miguel, but the rest of the contents in that trunk are mine."
"Of course. I have no interest in your business. This is a personal matter between me and Miguel."
He gestures at her with a sweep of his hand, indicating for her to walk ahead. "Be my guest. Any friend of Miguel's . . ."
His manner is friendly enough, but there's no question that he's in charge, and it feels as though he's luring her into a false sense of safety. After all, they're going to be trapped on this ship together for the next week, and were she foolish enough to expose the smuggling going on beneath the Morro Castle's upper decks, then she'd have a target on her back for the remainder of the cruise.
He pulls a key out of his pants pocket and opens the trunk.
Elena takes a step forward, grateful she didn't have to try her hand with the hairpin.
A pistol rests on top of what looks to be an extensive cache of weapons inside the trunk. It's small enough to be easily concealed, but hopefully enough to satisfy her needs.
She grabs the gun, sliding it into the pocket of her skirt.
When I was a little girl, my mother used to take me around New York City and show me the big, fancy buildings soaring high into the sky. We'd stand in front of them, and she'd arrange her fingers into the shape of a camera and pretend to take my picture. Remember this moment, Katie!
We called them our adventures, and on her rare days off when she wasn't cleaning up after the wealthy family she worked for, New York City was ours. We would roam the parts of the city we could, ogling the finery around us, staring into glass windows at beautiful gowns and out at sea, imagining all the places we could travel in a different life.
One day you'll go on a grand vacation. Just promise you'll take me with you, she would tease.
We couldn't afford the real thing, of course, but the pretense was nearly as good, and what I loved most about those memories was the way her lips would curve into a wide smile as though life was an adventure and one day our ship would come in and all our wildest dreams would come true.
In this moment in the New York Harbor, standing at Pier 13 on the gangway of the Morro Castle, the breeze blowing tendrils of hair from beneath my hat, it's as if she's standing before me, beaming down upon me, the ship grander than anything we could have ever imagined when I was a little girl.
Remember this moment, Katie!
Tears fill my eyes, and I bat them away, the enormous diamond ring on my left hand sparkling in the sunlight.
Overhead, towering above me like one of those great skyscrapers looming over the city skyline, the ship's horn blares, the sound echoing down the East River.
"Catherine, are you alright?" my fiancé Raymond asks beside me, his hand on my elbow holding me steady.
"Yes, I—" For a moment, my shoe slips, and I start once more, bumping into the gentleman in front of me.
He turns swiftly, catching me off guard.
I'm used to the wealthy moving languidly, as though the world is to meet them on their timetable, but despite the fine cut of the man's coat, he's surprisingly quick, his dark eyes glancing from me to Raymond and back again before offering up a pretty apology, even though I'm the one who is responsible for our current contretemps.
My cheeks heat, the curse of my fair skin, and I take a deep breath, steadying myself until it all falls away—the luxurious black and white ocean liner, my handsome, elegant fiancé, the stranger I have jostled, the cheery crowds.
I am once again Catherine Dohan, a wealthy young heiress, unsettled by nothing, cowed by nothing, and I as much as the man in the fine suit in front of me belong here on the gangway of the Morro Castle, a lifetime of wedded happiness and comfort waiting for me.
It's a pretty lie, but a necessary one.
If my mother could only see me now.
Up ahead, a bellhop pushes the mountain of luggage for our little entourage—me, Raymond, Raymond's two-year-old daughter Ava, and her nanny—on the gangway leading to the ship.
I've never seen such a vessel in all my life. The rest of the first-class passengers appear nonplussed by the opulence, my fiancé included, so I adopt the bored expression so many of them favor, as though I was raised traveling all over the world, the Morro Castle just another ship in a long line of them.
It's a delicate balancing act to keep all the lies I've told straight, to keep everything from going up in flames.
￼Raymond escorts me to my cabin, leaving me to freshen up while he attends to some business on the ship. Ava's nanny has already taken her to the accommodations they'll share for the trip, the little girl fighting to keep her eyes open in the face of her regular nap time.
Once I feel refreshed, I meet Raymond for tea in the first-class lounge before we part ways and I find a comfortable spot on the sundeck to read. It's impossible to ignore the enthusiasm around me, to not feel a bit as though I am on the precipice of something new, to let some of that energy seep into my pores.
The child who dreamed of adventures would have given anything for a chance to sail on a ship such as this one, and the urge to commit every single detail to memory is overwhelming. The ship is spotless, and I can't help but wonder how difficult it must be to keep a vessel of this size clean and running smoothly. It certainly must be a gargantuan task.
It's a lively crowd on the Morro Castle today, particularly on A deck, everyone excited for our burgeoning adventure. I spy a few groups of women my age, laughing and talking together, and part of me yearns to go over and join them, to be myself rather than this fiction I have created.
I open my book instead.
I've learned that the best approach is to keep things simple, to stick to the truth—or a close approximation of it—as much as possible.
My official story is that I am an orphan now, as I am in real life, except that in the fiction, my deceased parents left me tremendous wealth rather than big dreams, memories of love, and nothing else.
Minutes pass by as I lie on deck, the afternoon sun strong. I struggle to read; the sound of a nearby croquet game on deck pulls me out of my novel, the guests becoming uproariously loud as the play devolves into giggles and shouts.
I glance up as someone slides into the chair across from me.
It's the man from the gangway. The one with the quick reflexes that I bumped into.
It's forward of him to approach me without an introduction—even I know that—especially since I'm alone out here and he previously saw me in the company of my fiancé.
I don't bother responding, merely hold the book closer to my chest, peering over the top as I have seen so many society doyennes do, hoping I've successfully adopted their imposing stares with aplomb.
He lowers his smoke gray sunglasses to peer at me over the tops of his lenses.
His eyes, like his hair, are a dark brown.
"It's almost as beautiful as the woman wearing it," he adds, his lips curving into a flirtatious smile that lacks even a shred of genuineness.
What a truly atrocious line.
It isn't until his lips curve into real amusement, a startled laugh escaping his mouth, that I realize I've voiced the thought out loud.
"I'm reading," I add, too annoyed to be embarrassed by my directness, careful to keep my tone curt, hopeful he'll take the hint.
The last thing I need is for Raymond to see me in the company of another man, especially one as handsome as this one.
"The Thin Man." He takes the book out of my hand and studies the cover. "Is it any good?" he asks, before returning it to me.
"I wouldn't know. I've barely had a chance to start it, considering all the interruptions."
His smile deepens. "I'm Harry."
"Hello, Harry. I am terribly sorry to be rude, but I really would like to get back to my novel. I'm sure it's quite fascinating."
I've always loved to read, probably for the same reasons I dreamed of adventure. There is freedom and excitement in slipping on other personas, in pretending to be someone you're not. When my mother taught me how to clean the immense mansion she cared for, I used to spend my days making up stories as I went about my chores, pretending I was the lady of the manor and envisioning the glamorous life I led.
In the evenings, I would read late into the night—books from the library that my employer's wife was kind enough to let me borrow—and those stories took me everywhere. I traveled back in time and to the future, across oceans and over mountains. I lived countless adventures in those books, and with each one I taught myself something about the world to be filed away for later use. Maybe I'd never been shopping in Paris, but I'd certainly read about characters who did so, making it easy enough when members of society questioned me, playing their little games to see if I really fit into their world.
Books made me who I am.
"What's the novel about?" Harry asks.
I know his type, could recognize it from across the cruise ship deck without batting an eye. He's a bounder, and an unapologetic one at that, and if I haven't judged him wrong—and I rarely do—he's on the make, his eyes a little too shrewd for the devil-may-care attitude he projects, his gaze more sharply attuned to the glint of my diamond ring than my feminine attributes. Perhaps he's hunting for a wealthy spouse as well, one of those unfortunate second sons left with little more than a good name, expensive tastes, and a need to make his way in the world. While I shouldn't fault him, given my own ambitions, I won't countenance anyone jeopardizing mine, and I doubt Raymond would take kindly to seeing me in the company of a young playboy.
"It's about a detective and his wife solving a mystery," I answer, my voice cold as ice.
"You like mysteries?"
"I like seeing people get what's coming to them."
His eyes widen slightly, and I instantly regret my words. There is a propensity among the wealthy to couch their feelings behind innuendo and a cutting sense of humor, and sometimes I forget my directness can get me in trouble. It's as much of a tell as using the wrong fork at dinner.
"I didn't know debutantes were so bloodthirsty." He looks like he's swallowing a laugh.
"Do you know many debutantes? Based on your behavior so far, I would have guessed married women were more your fare."
His eyes widen even more, and this time he doesn't even bother biting back a laugh that rolls over me, the rich sound making my toes curl, the invitation to arch my back and lean into the warm caress of that sound undeniable.
"I'm flattered you noticed," he teases.
"Don't be. I don't have the time or inclination for flirtations. Or the luxury."
For a moment I think he's going to offer another quip. He must see the sincerity in my words reflected in my expression, though, because he merely inclines his head to me before turning away, leaving me alone on my lounger on the deck, book in hand.
￼Each night, we are to dine formally, the Morro Castle's chefs reputed to be extraordinary.
Now that the ship has made its way into the Atlantic Ocean, the rocking motions have grown more noticeable, and considering this is my first time at sea, my stomach roils and pitches as the evening progresses. And still, despite the threat of seasickness, there's something about the salt air, the hours spent on deck, that fills me with a tremendous hunger.
The Morro Castle in its stately grandeur is essentially an elegant hotel floating at sea. I lack the knowledge or interest to identify the style of decor other than to say it's vaguely European and reeking of wealth in an aspirational way I can't help but admire. As soon as you board the ship, you are treated as though you're royalty regardless of your station, even if there are subtle reminders—select social rooms reserved for first class and the like—that suggest otherwise. The Morro Castle isn't merely offering guests a vacation, it's creating an escape from the Depression, inviting passengers to leave the drudgeries of real life behind as they sail on this sumptuous voyage. Nowhere is that more personified than in the grand ballroom, where we are to dine this evening.
Raymond and I are led to our seats, wending our way through the ballroom. Raymond was delighted to be invited to the captain's table, the place of honor shared with several other guests for the evening. Unfortunately, the captain also chose to invite Harry, as well as a truly odious woman I saw berating her maid earlier in the hall. She's dressed in a garish green gown with ostrich plumes, an enormous emerald bracelet dangling from her right wrist.
The others at the table are already ensconced in conversation, Raymond and I the last to arrive. The volume drops slightly as we approach our dining companions and are introduced, as we are weighed and measured like pieces of meat.
I pass well enough under casual scrutiny, the engagement ring on my finger and Raymond on my arm doing the heavy lifting for me. The rest of it—the jewelry given to me by my fiancé, the dress borrowed from a stage production—good enough to satisfy most prying eyes.
I'm careful not to make eye contact with Harry as the waiter holds out my chair, Harry seated immediately to my left, the attention of our dinner companions fully shifting to us, the new arrivals.
Tonight, I opted for the emeralds Raymond bought me as an engagement gift, the ornate necklace the perfect accompaniment to the gown's low neckline.
This time when Harry's gaze drifts to me, I'm certain it isn't my jewelry he's ogling.
Despite his momentary shift in attention, he doesn't speak to me at all—perhaps he took my words to heart on the deck. His focus returns to the woman on his left—the one I saw lecturing her maid earlier.
Most of the dinner passes in silence for me as I listen to Raymond conversing with the other guests, his charm on full display. I realized a long time ago that in these situations, it's best to be circumspect, to let the others fill the table with their discussion, with their boasts and opinions. If I'm going to be found out, I imagine it will be in these moments when my guard is down, too busy focusing on proper dining etiquette, lulled into complacency by good food and wine.
In my silence, I learn Mrs. Gregory is eager to make a match for her daughter, and the possibility of a single gentleman like Harry seated so close by has inspired all her matchmaking fantasies. I can't help but chuckle at the fact that she seems more impressed by his outward appearance than she should be, and for someone who likely prides herself on being a reigning society queen, I'd expect her to have a better read on fortune hunters. Then again, it seems the male ones somehow always get a pass that isn't afforded to the rest of us similarly looking to improve our stations in life.
- On Sale
- Apr 11, 2023
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Hachette Book Group